AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISM, MATTENESS, AND VARNISHING
LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS
One of the most important questions that a conservator can ask about a painting is whether the painter preferred a varnished or an unvarnished surface, because varnishing—or not varnishing—can have an enormous effect upon the appearance of a painting. The taste for matte, unvarnished surfaces began with French Impressionist painters, especially Claude Monet (1840–1926) and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) (Swicklick 1993; Callen 1994, 2000). Many of the first generation of Americans who came under the influence of French Impressionism spent time in France and learned about French technique through studio instruction (usually taught by more traditional academic painters), by seeing at firsthand paintings by the more progressive French Impressionists, and in some cases by acquaintance with the French Impressionist painters themselves. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, Americans who remained in the United States also had the opportunity to be influenced directly by French Impressionist technique, because newly painted works by Monet and other French painters were exhibited with increasing frequency in New York, Boston, and other American cities. It is the purpose of this study to attempt to understand to what degree the French preference for nonvarnishing might have been transmitted to American painters.
This research builds upon a study of the techniques of American Impressionist and Tonalist painters published in this journal in 1993 (Mayer and Myers 1993; see also Mayer and Myers 1999). While written documentation about varnishing practice is scarce, information can be gleaned from artists' correspondence and diaries, instruction manuals, artists' supply catalogs, and in rare instances from inscriptions on paintings. The sum of the written evidence, as well as evidence from the examination and treatment of paintings, tends to support the authors' earlier opinion that the techniques used by American Impressionist painters varied widely and that while some American painters preferred an unvarnished surface, other American Impressionists varnished their paintings.